This past weekend, I was honored to be included in a panel discussion at ISFLC 2013 which was moderated by Nena Bartlett and also featured Cathy Reisenwitz and Julie Borowski. The panel was titled, “Girls! Girls! Girls!: Marketing Libertarianism to Women,” and the prepared version of my comments can be found below. Video of the whole panel should be posted on Cathy’s YouTube panel soon!
Question 1: Are there barriers to entry for women in the Liberty Movement? If so, what are they? If not, is there an issue with the current gender balance?
Are there barriers to entry for women in the liberty movement? I think for many of us, the self-evident answer seems to be a qualified yes. These barriers certainly aren’t formal—there aren’t any liberty organizations turning away women at the door—but it would be difficult to deny that there’s a gender imbalance. At this very conference, among the attendees and especially the roster of speakers, men are by far the majority.
Now, we libertarians have a lot of opinions that we love to share, but the subject of why most libertarians aren’t women has received comparatively little attention until the last few years—and the attention the question has gotten is, to my mind, typically not helpful.
Like some conservatives, some libertarians make the case that women are naturally more inclined to lean left—usually it’s some combo of their apparent greater desire to fit in or the maternal instinct feeding a love of social programs. Some go so far as to say that women make their political decisions according to their feelings, not logic (like men), and indeed women “are natural socialists.”
We could have a very lengthy discussion about whether or not there is truth in these claims and, if so, if such habits of behavior are truly innate or if they’re simply the product of social conditioning.
I’m not interested in having that discussion—and I don’t think the liberty movement as such needs to do so either. Let psychologists and sociologists figure out those details.
For my purposes here, suffice it to say that I’m not in that camp. This analysis strikes me as off-putting at best—not to mention, it’s an ironically sweeping collectivization coming from supposedly individualist libertarians. It’s perhaps also noteworthy that this panel isn’t discussing whether men are too difficult to reach with the message of liberty because they’re “naturally” inclined to aggression and war.
But I digress. Rather than talk about differences between the sexes, the suggestion I’d like to make is that even if the most extreme of these claims about women are true—if women are by nature mandated by their emotion-addled brains to focus only on pragmatic, often collective ways to take care of others—that should not be a barrier to equal representation of women within the liberty movement.
If it is a barrier, then we, not women at large, are the ones doing something wrong.
The onus remains on the liberty movement to get women into the fold.
In short: This is a marketing problem.
We have (I certainly think) great philosophy, noble goals, and fresh ideas for how to achieve those goals.
We should be able to communicate that vision to others in an attractive manner.
The alternative to the conclusion that this is a marketing problem is not so nice.
Ultimately, it consists of accepting that libertarianism is simply not of interest to half of the people in the world—and there’s not much we can do about that.
If that’s the case, I frankly don’t see much future for liberty.
As one YAL blogger commented while mulling over this very issue, “how can any movement continue when half of the population—the half that spends the most time raising and teaching our children—is either indifferent to its ideals or actively opposed to them?”
Now, to focus on a marketing problem isn’t to say that women are less intelligent than men or more easily manipulated by a nice logo design. After all, last I checked, the majority of men in America aren’t libertarians either.
It is to say that the liberty movement as a whole must stop spending our time discussing whether the little lady can think logically and instead learn to present our ideas to all kinds of people—including women—in a more persuasive manner.
Question 2: How can the liberty movement become more effective in communicating the message of liberty to women?
If I was at all coherent in my first response, you know by now that this follow-up question is right up my alley.
Unfortunately, in four minutes, it’s not possible to go into too much detail about what fixing our marketing problem might require. So I’d like to start by addressing one specific issue, and then offer five more generalized thoughts.
The specific issue is this: The easiest aspect of our marketing we can address immediately is the very discussion of how to attract women. I mentioned earlier that conversations about this question frequently focus on inherent differences between men as a group and women as a group—with the conclusion that women are emotional and, by implication if not explicit addition, less logical than men.
There may have been a time when we as a movement could get away with talking like this amongst ourselves in the “privacy” of our online circles. That time is not now—and that’s a good thing. We’ve gotten too big and too publicly visible.
Now, as the rabbit in Bambi wisely said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
You see, for better or worse, in our culture—and even moreso in the libertarian subculture—saying that someone makes their political decisions for emotional, rather than logical, motives is an insult.
Think about it.
In any other context than the question of women in politics, telling someone their political stance isn’t based in reason will be received as a criticism.
We understand that foreign countries won’t like our country if we bomb them. Why can’t we understand that individual women won’t like our movement if we insult them? This is just another kind of blowback.
Now, on to five unconnected, general suggestions.
One: When it comes to marketing to women, let’s be honest: The Democratic Party is better than the GOP. And it’s not just graphic design. Democrats’ tone is generally perceived as friendly and hopeful, while Republicans are seen as angry old men shouting for the women of the world to get off their lawn.
This isn’t about the merits of either party’s ideas; it’s about which one does a better job of making those ideas attractive, particularly to women. On that question, there’s simply no debate. It is incumbent on the liberty movement to learn from this situation and follow in the marketing footsteps of the clear winners.
Two: Be intentional about recruiting women. Don’t just hope they’ll show up.
In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that, as political candidates and elected officials, women are actually a better fit for libertarianism than men. The New York Times has noted that “women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody.”
That devotion to principle and policy over personal fame?—that’s why we love Ron Paul…and that’s a more typically female trait in politics.
Three: Don’t make your personal choices part of the package. Whether you lean more conservative in your personal life or you’re the first to call someone out for slut-shaming, don’t tie those preferences to the liberty message.
That doesn’t mean you have to keep your non-political opinions secret. I certainly don’t conceal mine. But it does mean that it’s not a wise idea to tie acceptance of those beliefs to acceptance of libertarianism.
We’re here to discuss barriers to women becoming libertarians. Don’t make your personal preferences one of those barriers.
Four: Don’t be a creeper. This is most applicable on a personal level, but I think it’s noteworthy that essentially all of the posts on the subject of women and liberty which appear on the YAL blog touch on this point.
And it’s a simple point: Keep politics professional, because we have to stop offending women before we can even make our case.
Five: Finally, err on the side of empathy, both in explaining policy positions and in figuring out what would be appealing to your intended audience.
In answer to the first question I mentioned that I don’t think it’s useful for libertarians as such to spend time considering whether women as a group are more emotional and less logical than men as a group. That said, studies show—and I think we can agree—that libertarians as a group tend to be more focused on logic than the average person.
When we’re making the case for liberty, we must keep that in mind. We must paint an accurate picture of liberty—a picture that’s not just about strict principles and a bracing free market, but also about ending war to save civilian lives, and stopping the drug war to reunite families, and supporting economic freedom to help the poor.
Empathy, too, is marketing, and we can’t have too much of it no matter what gender is our target audience.